by David Bassano
The three of them turned off Pine Street and onto Crystal Avenue with the large white warehouse on their right and a half-full parking lot on their left. It was cool that night and for Nick it was a harbinger that summer was ending. He remembered how this weather depressed him in years past because it meant he would soon be back in school; now it meant nothing to him except the opportunity to wear the leather jacket more often.
They passed the parking lot and now the glass factory was on their left and a small bar which catered to factory workers on their right. The bar was a two-storey white house with no sign out front. Two men came out the door and down the steps.
"Heya!" one of them called to the boys.
"Hey!" said Mike.
"Whatcha boys doin' tonight?" the man asked. "Y'out hellin' it up or what?"
"Hell yeah!" said Nick.
"Yeah, thas' cool," said the man, searching his pockets for a cigarette. Ed gave them one apiece.
"We used to do that ourselves all the time," said the first man.
"Yeah, but we's married now," said the other sadly.
"Yeah, we's respectable gennamen," said the first. The two staggered down the street chuckling and the boys laughed too as they watched them go.
"We's respectable gennamen," mimicked Ed.
The boys walked to where the train tracks crossed the street and followed the tracks behind the factory, which was enclosed by a rusty chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The factory still hummed and would hum all night with gray smoke above the stacks. On their right was a steep embankment topped with scraggly bushes. The gravel bed under the tracks was covered with broken glass from the factory, charred wood and empty beer bottles. The three of them sat on a large concrete block and Nick passed around a whiskey bottle from the inside pocket of his jacket.
"Nick, yer leavin'?" asked Mike.
"Yeah. San Diego," said Nick.
"Don't know exactly. Maybe the end of next month."
"California," said Ed, the cigarette in his mouth wagging up and down as he spoke, dropping ashes on the ground. "They're all weird out there. Why doncha you go to Florida?"
"Because it's hot and humid and it rains too much."
"Better than California."
"You've never been to Florida or California."
"What'd yer mom say?" asked Mike.
"I haven't told her yet," said Nick.
"You gonna tell her?"
"That's messed up, dude."
"She'd only start screamin'. I'll send her a postcard when I get there. Same time I send yours."
"Whatcha gonna do when you get out there?" asked Mike.
"Guess I'll get a bed in a backpacker's hostel and look for a job. Maybe share an apartment with some college guys. You can go to school cheap out there if you're a California resident. Maybe I'll get myself educated."
"Why don't you just go to college here in Jersey?"
"Because it's Jersey," said Nick.
"I need to go someplace I've never been," said Nick. "Someplace where nobody knows me. Where I don't have a history."
"You wanna come?" asked Nick. Ed laughed and lifted the bottle.
"Nah, not me," said Mike. "I got it easy here. I'll just keep shuckin' clams down in Port Norris for now. Somethin'll come along."
"Come to Cali," said Nick. "We'll rent a place on the beach and pick up surfer girls. We'll work in a bike shop and stay fucked up all the time."
"Nah, you go 'head."
"Yer fuckin' nuts," grumbled Ed.
They sat in silence, passing the bottle and listening to the drone of the glass factory.
"California," said Mike, looking up at the smokestacks. He smoked quietly, thinking.
The Kamenac River ran through a valley in northeastern Slovakia close to the Polish border. About ten kilometers north of the city of Bardejov, pronounced BARD-a-hoy, were the ruins of Zborov Chateau overlooking the Kamenac, like the bleached and fragmented shell of a crustacean sticking up above the trees at the top of a steep hill. Most of the strategic hills in Slovakia had castles or chateaus on them, usually decayed. Most every acre of tillable land was under cultivation. The hills on either side of the Kamenac Valley had been cleared for farms, except the summits and steeper slopes, which retained their cover of trees. If your eyes were good you could stand down on the road and see who was working in each hillside field, walking behind a plow or loading a wagon or swinging a scythe depending on the season. The road through the valley was an ancient trade route that once ran between Budapest in the south and the Baltics in the north, and for centuries traders, soldiers, gypsies, immigrants, refugees, and farmers had passed in either direction over it, the last on their way to or from the markets of Bardejov. They would have noted the landmark of the chateau as they passed, but few ever visited the village under the hill. They saw the sign and kept going. But a few who were on the road too late to cover the last ten kilometers to Bardejov would have stopped in Zborov for a bed and a meal before leaving at dawn without seeing more of the little farming village than the stagecoach house.
Outside the village, on the west side of the trade route, a dirt road ran along a stream towards a narrow notch between two steep hills. A short distance up the road was a small wooden hut. The trees came in close and the red metal roof was covered with leaves. There was an uncovered stack of firewood against one wall. The siding was rotting in places with patches of moss covering the damp spots; it was poorly repaired with wood from various sources, the bed of a green wagon or the door of a red barn. An herb garden ran around two sides of the hut, bursting over a low wall of bricks. The pile of kindling was so overgrown with weeds that the owners no longer tried to untangle it, but left it to rot.
Janos was on the hill above the hut, sitting against a tree in the thick grass. He could see the rooftops of Zborov above the trees. Across the road were the ruins of the chateau on the steep hill where magpies roosted at night. He was a tall, thin boy of sixteen. He had sandy hair, usually disheveled, a large nose and large hands. His black trousers and grey cotton shirt were stained and frayed. He stared at the chateau as the silver light was fading after sunset; the tops of the hills still caught the yellow sunlight. Every now and then a distant sound reached him from the village, a dog barking or a shout. He waited until the light had almost completely faded, then walked down the pathless hill to the hut.
Nick worked days in a diesel repair shop; a notation on his paycheck stub called him a "general utility person" with a salary of minimum wage. He swept the shop and cleaned oil spots from the concrete floor and sometimes drove the van to Hammonton to pick up parts from the Caterpillar dealer. He worked at the shop from nine to five on weekdays; then he worked from six to midnight at a convenience store, standing at the register or making sandwiches or stocking shelves. He also worked there all day Saturday and Sunday. It was tolerable because he knew it was only for a little while.
He was almost never home. He lived with his parents in the house in which he'd grown up. His older sister had married against their parents' will and moved to Long Island. His younger sister was just finishing high school as an honor student. Nick would come home very late and enter quietly. If his mother was already asleep, he'd often find notes taped to his bedroom door telling him to clean the bathroom or do the laundry.
One Sunday night he finished his shift earlier than usual. He put his uniform in his locker and took his bicycle from the back room. Normally he would have ridden the two miles home, regardless of the weather; but he knew his parents were still awake at this hour and he didn't want to see them.
Instead he continued down the boulevard on his bike past the street where he lived, against the one-way traffic with the railroad tracks on his right and the park on his left. It had been a warm day but the night was cool and even cooler riding. He turned left on Landis Avenue, riding down the wide sidewalk. All the shops were closed, even the bodegas, with unlit neon beer signs hanging in their windows. Some shops were always closed with plywood nailed over the windows. The paint was peeling from most of the buildings and there were chips of paint and fragments of shingles on the sidewalk mixed with broken glass.
There was only an occasional car and no pedestrians and the only sound Nick heard was the buzzing of the derailleur. As he pedaled down the sidewalk his shadow raced ahead of him, lengthening and fading as he put a streetlight behind him, then reappeared behind him as he approached the next light, swinging around to his left and lengthening again.
He came to his parish church, which under the floodlights looked dull and flat, like a painting. Next to it was the grammar school that he'd attended. Behind that was the parish high school; across Myrtle Street, beyond the empty parking lot, was the rectory. Here's where your life has been, he thought. Some goddamn start. He wondered if it was really possible to leave his old life behind. No one would know your reputation or your history, he told himself, but you'd still carry them around inside you. Or maybe you don't have to. I'll find out when I get there.
The basilica before him vanished. He saw instead the beach at La Jolla under a cloudless blue sky and the palm trees lining the streets in front of the hotels and cafes. He pictured young people on the beach, surfers with deep tans playing volleyball. The girls in his mind were athletic, with sun-bleached hair bright against sunburned shoulders, barefoot on the boardwalk with anklets of hemp and beads. They windsurfed and took ecstasy and went to raves. The boys were carefree, almost preternaturally confident, and they worked in surf shops or as lifeguards and shared cheap apartments among five or six of them. They quit their jobs periodically to drive their Microbuses down to Puerto Vallarta or the Baja to surf and drink and live in the hostels and cantinas for the winter before coming home to start the cycle over again. He'd join them for a few years before starting college. He planned to go straight to the beach when he arrived, and drop his pack and lie in the sand and feel the sun on his face. Maybe he'd skip the hostel the first night and sleep on the beach with the moon on the water, drinking with the surfers who played guitars around campfires beyond the reach of the breakers.
He'd be there in three weeks. It didn't seem real yet. I'm not scared, he thought. No, but you will be when the time comes and things get real. Not that it matters. You can't turn back because you told all your friends you're leaving. The last bridge you burn isn't quitting a job or buying a plane ticket; it's telling your friends that you're leaving your jerkwater town and never coming back.
He noticed that he'd been staring at the doors of the church with the Apostles staring back from the archway over the entrance. He wished he could just stay like this, not leaving, but knowing he wasn't staying either.
Janos came back to the house at about noon with his fowling piece over his shoulder and two magpies hanging limply in his hand. His sister, Susanna, was grinding coffee.
"I didn't hear the shots," she said.
"I was on the other side of the hill." He liked to hunt around the ruins of the chateau. It was very old, the villagers said, and had been in ruins for a hundred and fifty years. There was enough of it still standing to get an idea of its size and strength. Janos had seen other intact chateaus of the province, which was Šariš, so he knew what the ruins had once been. Occasionally he'd see gypsies up there, and always avoided them, but usually he was alone with the broken walls. He'd sit on a rock and reconstruct the chateau in his mind from the inside out. That's the remains of the fireplace, he'd imagine, in the hall where the lord of the manor held court; in a darkened room over there a jealous courtier plotted treachery; up on that wall was a battlement where a lady stood, chin on her hand, and from the village of Zborov below her came the occasional sounds of a dog barking or a shout.
Janos leaned the gun against the wall and Susanna took the magpies outside to pluck them. She was a young widow; her husband had died a year before of typhus. She had moved out of their house in the village because her mother-in-law had moved in to care for the property. She had said that the house was part of her son's inheritance and, with his death, she was taking it back into the family. Rather than fight, Susanna took the small sum her husband left her and bought the little cottage along the stream outside the village. She was in no mood to remarry anytime soon.
Janos was predisposed against marriage because of what had happened to his older brother. There were almost no single women of matrimonial age left in Zborov and Tomaz had settled for whatever remained. Well, what am I gonna do, he'd told Janos. A man has to marry. But his wife was in no way suited to him, or to anyone else, he said. They had a son, and Tomaz stayed out of the house as much as possible until his wife complained to both sets of parents and they pressured him to spend more time at home. Then she complained that he wasn't making enough money and they pressured him to go out and work more hours.
Janos had joined Susanna as another exile from the village. His mother had been trying for a year to find him a wife. There would be a few available if Janos, or rather his mother, could wait two or three years for them to come of age. His mother had one in mind and tried to keep her identity a secret from Janos, but he overheard her gossiping one day and went to have a look at the girl. He was not pleased by what he saw.
When he confronted his mother with his discovery she was not only adamant in her decision but also deeply offended at his spying and the lack of faith it reflected. When he became uncharacteristically sharp her mouth dropped open and his father spun around and suddenly Janos was sitting on the floor. Bright red blood spattered on dark grey tile.
His mother was trying to swear but was so shocked she could only stammer as he went out the door. She knew where he was going.
"Buje Moj!" cried his sister when she saw his bloody face, and stuffed a rag into his nostrils.
Nick worked his last day at the convenience store two weeks before he planned to leave. He told his coworkers where he was going and they responded with "must be nice to go to California" or "wish I was going." Nick knew why they couldn't. Most had spouses, children, or both. Nick hadn't had much luck with girls. Now that he appreciated the freedom to pick up and move at will he started to think that he had, after all, been lucky.
The day before he was to leave he picked up his last paycheck from the store and cashed it. In the evening he wanted to walk around his old neighborhood. He wondered if he would miss the fall here with the trees changing color. He knew the seasons don't really change in San Diego. I sure won't miss winter here, he thought. It's dark and icy and the people don't know how to handle the snow. An announcement of three inches and they run to the supermarket to stock up as if a hurricane was about to strike.
He looked at each house as he passed it in the still night with the distant hum of the glass factory. Each house with its porch light had a story. That's where Joe grew up, he thought. Joe's grandmother was very sweet and when they were children she would make them snacks when they came in from playing football in the street. Joe had moved to Bridgeton with his girlfriend. There was the Kent's house, where the owners had retired to Florida and sold the house to a daughter who scandalized the neighborhood by marrying a Latino after having his children. That perfectly-trimmed lawn marks the territory of old man Napoli who had the evilest reputation in the neighborhood. They said that everything in the house was exactly as it had been when his wife died twenty-five years ago. There's where the two old sisters lived, both older than Nick's grandmother, and they would sit on their porch all day and gather the meager gossip of the neighborhood. Nick figured they embellished it to make it at all interesting before passing it on. Sometimes he walked down the street with Ed and Mike, and the three would wave to the ladies, since they enjoyed being polite to old people, and the ladies would smile and wave and bid them good day. Then Nick would look back over his shoulder to see them whispering.
He came to Ed's house. Actually it was Ed's mother's house. Ed had a TV and VCR in his room and they'd spent many nights watching movies until the early morning. Ed's mother was rarely home and didn't complain much when they smoked weed in Ed's bedroom, blowing the smoke out the window. They'd rent two movies and have an older friend buy them beer. Ed always fell asleep before the second movie was over, and Nick would clear out a space on the floor amid the cigarette-scented clothes, cassette tapes, and Playboy magazines and sleep a while before leaving with Ed still snoring. He thought it was during one of those nights that he'd first come up with the idea of going to California. Maybe I saw it in a movie or something, he thought. I can't remember. Seems like I've always wanted to leave.
Now he saw the light on in Ed's window. The window was open so Ed was probably smoking. Nick stood under the window and heard the TV from inside.
"Hey, Ed," he said. He waited and called again.
"Who is it?"
"It's Nick. C'mon out."
"I'm going tomorrow. I got some Jack. Come on out and have a drink."
There was a pause.
"I can't," said Ed.
"'Cause I can't, alright?"
Okay, thought Nick. If that's the way you want it.
"So long, Ed."
As he walked away, he heard Ed say, "You ain't leavin'."
He walked home in the dark, listening to the soles of his sneakers on the pavement. At his house he unlocked the door and walked in. His mother and younger sister were watching TV in the living room. Neither of them looked up when he entered. He went into his bedroom and suddenly felt a strong affection for them both. He didn't understand why.
Janos sat on a stone wall between two fields along a dusty dirt road at the edge of the village, carving a pennywhistle from a short tree branch. After smoothing it with a penknife he would hollow it out with a long drill bit and a rattail file. If he had a whole day to work on it, he could make ten of them and then sell them for a penny apiece to the children of the village. It was better than farm work though it didn't pay as much. He could usually pick up a day's work on the farms, especially at harvest time. He didn't like doing it every day. He also preferred going from one farm to another doing different jobs to avoid boredom. The men on the farms never really accepted him, since he was young and was an outsider at every place. He didn't mind because he kept to himself most of the time anyway.
So he picked up small sums from farm work and pennywhistles; carpentry, particularly cabinetry, in peoples' houses; or gathering mushrooms and wild strawberries in the hills and selling them at the farmer's market. Besides his brother and sister, the only friend he had was Father Cyril, the priest at Saint Margita's Chapel. Janos often volunteered to do small jobs around the church, like weeding around the ancient building with "1320" carved into the cornerstone, or painting the statues of the saints out in the yard. Father Cyril told him he was working his way to heaven.
He sold a few pennywhistles to children on the street, knowing they'd lose them and want another in a week, then, at dusk, walked to the pub next to the brewery. He was downwind and could smell the pungent odor of the brewing mash. Both the pub and the brewery were in a long, low stone building with a red metal roof. Years ago it had been a stagecoach house servicing the trade route, and the brewery had been the stables. Janos walked up the fieldstone path in the fading daylight and pulled open the heavy blue door.
It was warm inside and dimly lit by oil lanterns hanging from the ceiling beams and wall hooks and it smelled of food and pipe smoke. There was a large fireplace for cooking and an iron stove across the room with a low fire burning in it. The place was crowded with men from the fields with muddy boots and dusty trousers. They turned to look as he came in then, disinterested, turned back to their meals and beer.
It was here that Janos got his political education such as it was. He was a little vague about the details but it was clear that the men were universally opposed to the government. The Magyars were the problem, they all said, the Magyars from Hungary who ruled the country as part of their empire. They wouldn't let the children learn Slovak in the schools, only Hungarian, nor allow the teaching of Slovak history. They wouldn't let Slovaks hold public office. They were trying to destroy Slovak culture, the men said, so that the Slovaks wouldn't rebel. There wouldn't be any Slovaks left; they'd all be made into Magyars. Janos heard that the Magyars looked down on Slovaks as country bumpkins the same way the Czechs did. Nothing ever went past complaining though. What happened in the city schools wasn't of much concern to the farmers and the farmers couldn't do anything about the Magyars anyway. Also it seemed the Magyars weren't very concerned with farmers because they left them alone.
Janos hung up his frayed black jacket and headed for the dim far corner where he always sat alone. Tonight the table was occupied by two men. He was about to find another when he recognized the two as his cousins, Anton and Peter. They were brothers, sons of one of Janos' uncles. They were both about ten years older than Janos and worked on farms in Svidnik. He usually saw them at Christmas, when they might take a sleigh to Zborov with their father to visit relatives.
"Ahoj!" he called to them. "What are you doing here?"
"Hello, Janos," said Anton, pulling out the bench for him. "We're going to Bardejov to visit friends."
"Now? During harvest?" said Janos, sitting down.
The two older men looked at each other silently. Anton smoked his pipe, thinking.
"We're going to America," he said.
"What? What about your families?"
"They'll come over after we've gotten jobs and have a place for them to stay. We'll send money and then they can join us."
The idea of going to America wasn't foreign to Janos. It was popular for Slovaks to emigrate there and he knew there were communities of Slovaks in America to help you when you arrived, people who could speak your language, places to buy Slovak food, and priests to say the Mass in Slovak.
"Where are you going to stay when you get there?"
"Our brother is in Pennsylvania. We'll stay with him."
"Can you get jobs there?"
"Certainly. There are plenty of jobs in coal mines and steel mills. And the railroads."
Peter asked the girl for a pitcher of beer and a stein for Janos.
"Where are you going from Bardejov?"
"Up to Krakow. Then by train to Bremer. Then the ship to America."
All the names sounded exotic to Janos.
"You're going to Germany first?"
"Slovakia is landlocked," said Peter, and his brother grinned.
They sat drinking silently in the noisy pub. Peter was deferring the question to his older brother.
"Do you want to come?" asked Anton finally.
"Sure. Do you have any money?"
"A little. I can get enough for a train ticket, at least."
"We're leaving in the morning. Riding with a farmer to Bardejov. Meet us here at six in the morning if you want to go."
"We can't wait. We're picking up friends in Bardejov who are coming with us."
Janos walked back to the hut. He didn't know what to think. Like many Slovak men he dreamt of going to America. There was nothing but farm work available in Zborov. He could move to a city, like Košice or Bratislava, and look for a job, but then he'd be in the world of the Magyars of which the men complained and which he'd always been able to ignore. If he was going to leave, he might as well go with family to America.
"Go, you dunce!" said Susanna when he told her what had happened. "Go while you have the chance!"
"Why don't you come too?"
"Me? Oh…no. Not yet. Maybe someday. But I like my little hut and my garden."
"I'll miss you."
"Don't miss me. You won't. Get a good job over there and get married. Forget Zborov."
Janos wanted to say something else to her but didn't know how. She was already getting things together for his trip. She handed him a canvas sack with a drawstring and told him to hold it open. She got a wheel of cheese, potatoes, a large loaf of dark bread and a bag of Georgian tea and packed it in the sack. She filled a wineskin from the basin of water. He let her do whatever she wanted and didn't object to anything. He knew it was her way of saying what he couldn't. He put some clothes into the sack and wrapped them around a bottle of plum brandy. Susanna took her old prayer book from the hutch and put it into his vest pocket. He noticed he had one of the pennywhistles in his trouser pocket; on a whim he put it into the sack with everything else.
He didn't sleep that night. When it was time to go, his sister came into the room to wake him but he was already awake. He washed in the basin and she had a cup of coffee ready for him. They talked a little but he knew no way to say what he was feeling. It was happening too fast. By the time he could say it he'd be gone. Susanna sent him down the road to the village.
It was quiet and cold on the trade road and the sun was just beginning to rise. It was a Sunday morning and no one was out yet. In a couple of hours the church bell at Saint Margita's would ring and Father Cyril would say Mass. Nobody who left Zborov for America ever came back, so he knew he'd probably heard those bells for the last time. I'm going to miss Father Cyril, Janos thought. I'll miss him and my brother and Susanna most of all. Maybe I should just go back. It's not bad living next to the stream and nobody bothers me there. But then he saw in his mind's eye the photographs he'd seen of New York and San Francisco and wanted to walk the streets in the photographs. He'd have the money to eat in the restaurants that spilled out onto the sidewalks. He wished he'd asked Susanna to tell Father Cyril where he'd gone. He wondered who would weed around the chapel and care for the statues now.
He didn't realize it that morning but the ground over which he walked would, in just a few years, become the front line in a war the likes of which not even Europeans had seen and would not have started if they had known just how bloody it would be. Much of the village would be destroyed and most of the inhabitants would flee, and only about half of them would return after the war. It would have been almost impossible to imagine such a thing that morning, in the silence of the village with gold and red leaves piling up on the road. The chapel, however, would survive, and the hilltop from which Janos enjoyed watching the sunset would sprout crosses made from iron pipes to mark the graves of fallen soldiers.
As he came down the road into the village he saw the horses and wagon in front of the tavern and the men gathered around it. At the back of the wagon were Peter and Anton and the farmer who was going to Bardejov. There was another figure coming down the road towards them. Tomaz put his canvas sack into the wagon and smiled wryly at Janos.
The men got into the wagon, which was loaded with sacks of oats for the market, and sat with their legs hanging out the back. They rode up to the old trade route as the sun caught the summits of the hills. Janos took out the bottle of brandy and passed it around. The last he saw of his hometown to the end of his days was the morning sun on the ruins of Zborov Castle with magpies circling the hilltop as the horses pulled them one step at a time towards America.
The next morning, Nick put his bicycle and backpack into his car and drove to Mazzochi Auto, where they had told him a week before that they would give him six hundred dollars for the car. He got the check, put on the pack, and rode the bike into town to his bank. He cashed the check, then emptied out the account and closed it. He now had about three thousand dollars in his back pocket. He'd never had that much before.
He rode up Delsea Drive and went around the circle until he was headed east on Landis Avenue. He passed the places he'd known all his life and felt a twinge of nostalgia where before there'd only been contempt. So long, Pat and Ralf's Steaks, he thought. He wondered if he'd be able to get a real cheesesteak in San Diego. Goodbye to the pool hall, where he and Ed and Mike used to go and try to act tough to impress the pool players who laughed at them and bought them drinks. Goodbye to the football field where the high school teams played and where Nick's graduation had been held. Goodbye to the cinema and the Chinese restaurant. He felt a lot of things and it was too hard to untangle the feelings that were going by so fast.
He arrived outside the small bus station, an ugly low brown building with small windows. He'd gone past it hundreds of times in his life and had never been inside. He'd never used public transportation other than a school bus. The NJ Transit line through the town only went to Philadelphia or the shore, and since he'd gotten his car he'd never needed the bus anyway. Funny, he thought, that this should be the last building I'd use in this town, as if it had been sitting here waiting for me.
He put his bike behind the building and left it for whoever wanted it. Inside, the walls were tan and the floor was brown tile. There was a ticket counter, a few fiberglass chairs, and a stand with fried Cuban food going stale under heat lamps.
"One-way to Philly," he told the girl at the counter and asked for the time of the next bus. In the city he'd take another bus to the airport, then buy a standby ticket to San Diego.
He sat in one of the orange fiberglass seats with his pack on his lap. In it were a few articles of warm-weather clothing, the best of the California guidebooks, his Walkman and a few tapes, a blank notebook to serve as a journal, and a little chocolate.
This is crazy, he suddenly thought. You've never been anywhere by yourself. You've never been in a hostel. What will you do if you can't find a job? Will you come back home? And he remembered what Ed said last night and knew he couldn't stay now. He had to go and he couldn't come back.
He took out the pennywhistle, which he'd brought along as a charm at the last moment. His grandmother had given it to him when he was a boy although his mother had objected since the whistle was considered a valuable heirloom. His grandmother said that her father had carved it when he lived in Slovakia and brought it over on the ship from Germany. Nick had never met his great-grandfather Janos. He was born two years too late. His grandmother said that the old man never talked about Slovakia nor taught his children to speak Slovak. He wanted the children to be American and not feel like foreigners. Nick knew that the old man had come over with only twenty-two dollars in his pocket and no English and had still made a go of it. He came by ship from Germany, was at sea for Christmas and, to save money, survived on only sauerkraut during the two-week crossing. He arrived in Baltimore and went to a suburb of Pittsburgh, where he found mining work too dangerous, then went to Haverstraw on the Hudson River in New York. There he married, had six children, worked for the railroad, and earned a good pension. He and his wife came to live in their oldest daughter's house in Vineland after he retired and he died there with his family at his bedside. If old Janos could do it with twenty-two bucks, Nick thought, I can certainly do it with three thousand.
When his bus pulled up across the street from the station he went out and got on with a few other people. He kept his pack with him and put his hand on the wad of money to be sure it was still there; he also felt his house keys in his pocket and it occurred to him that they were now useless. The seats of the coach were much more comfortable than those of a school bus. Most of them were empty.
The bus started west on Landis Avenue and turned north on Route 55. On the highway the green and white signs proclaimed the names of the towns he'd known his whole life. Malaga. Glassboro. Pitman. Runnemede. Each sign came up fast, rushed by, and was gone and he felt like pieces of him were being torn out and that he was being emptied.
Finally he saw the Walt Whitman Bridge in the distance with a jet floating over it towards the international airport. As the bus climbed the long bridge over the Delaware he looked down into the city of Philadelphia with the glass of the skyscrapers reflecting the morning sun. From this height the streets and highways below appeared almost like a map. The cars, trains, people, buses, ships on the river, and planes overhead were all in motion in the giant matrix of the city, like some impossibly complex organism with a sublime life of its own.
Nick put his hand in the backpack and held the pennywhistle. So this is what old Janos felt like, he thought with a smile. So I've met the old man at last.